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Pregnant and Pushed into Poverty

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A health care worker, 17 weeks pregnant, asks to be temporarily relieved of heavy lifting duties. She is put on indefinite unpaid leave and ends up in a homeless shelter.

Her lawyer, Dina Bakst, is co-founder of A Better Balance, which advocates for working families. She's recently written a book with Phoebe Taubman, Babygate: What You Really Need to Know About Pregnancy and Parenting, to guide parents through complex laws that vary by state.

A lawsuit settled favorably for the expectant mom. Dina would be happier if laws were strengthened to the point where employers would be discouraged from even trying to discriminate against pregnant and parenting women. In the case of pregnant women, she wants to see the same standard of reasonable accommodation that covers disabled workers.

"Reproductive moments are really a trigger of inequality toward women," she says. Dina talks about a pregnant cashier denied an extra bathroom break, a nursing mom who can't go to a private place to express milk, and way too many women put on "unpaid leave" because they wanted some small change in their work environment to promote healthy pregnancies.

Women in low-income jobs are especially vulnerable to discrimination. "Women are pushed deeper into poverty, really at a time when they need financial stability the most," she says, noting that a layoff frequently means a pregnant woman will lose her health insurance.

"There's been a lot of chatter and attention paid to the dilemmas of working women," says Dina. But that has focused around books like Lean In that deal with workplace issues facing middle- and high-income women.

"The statistics are astounding on how becoming pregnant dramatically increases a woman's risk for poverty either immediately or in old age," Dina says.

That's a great point. Low-income moms are often vilified for having babies "they" can't afford. (Apparently, women have babies all by themselves.) That criticism ignores the overwhelming evidence that many women are thrust into poverty by motherhood itself. Women are fired or passed over for promotion because of their pregnancies, then scolded for not earning enough to support their babies.

Dina is pushing for a New York state bill that would give pregnant women more clearly defined protections in the workplace and insists that national legislation is needed to create a higher standard of protection.

Ultimately, Dina wants to see America take a second look at how it views the relationship between career and the demands of caring for a family. "I do believe that there is an ethic in this country that these problems are ones for individuals to share in private on their own," she says, noting that the United States is the only industrialized nation that does not offer paid family leave.

She wrote Babygate in part to get people thinking about just how badly the deck can be stacked against young families. "We might generate some outrage that might convert into action," Dina says.

I hope so. Outrage converted into action is one of my favorite things.